Explore the Majesty of Devils Tower
In the early morning near the Black Hills, a mist sets over the land. The fog engulfs the rocks and hides the prairies around it, and as the sun begins to rise, the only visible sight is a towering rock structure that massively sits atop the haze. It’s as if the formation is being lifted off the ground and into the clouds. Rising 1,200 feet above the Belle Fourche River, the giant structure that you see is Devils Tower.
This majestic, plateau-like figure has been igniting the imaginations of Americans since the pre-colonial era, and it has the power to inspire awe even among the most pragmatic of us. Set among an outcrop of pines along sedimentary rocks common to the area, you can’t help but wonder how Devils Tower came to be.
History of Devils Tower
50 to 60 million years ago, magma began to rise through the Earth’s crust, pushing up layers upon layers of rock that had formed during earlier periods in history. While it is sometimes possible to study mountains and cliffs to deduce how they came to be, differing theories on how Devils Tower formed persist. Some believe it’s igneous rock pushing up on the sedimentary layers, causing the tower to rise. Others believe it is the remnants of a large but extinct volcano.
The first recorded discovery was by Captain William F. Reynolds as he led an expedition out west to Yellowstone and came across the tower on his way. Native Americans called it Grizzly Bear Lodge, or some variation of Bear’s Lair. In 1875, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge led an expedition through the area, and when they came upon the tower, his interpreter misheard the name to be “Bad God’s Tower”, or Devils Tower. The name stuck.
U.S. Congress declared Devils Tower a part of the forest reserve in 1892. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the formation to be protected by the government as Devils Tower National Monument.
Folklore and Legends
Well before the early pioneers discovered Devils Tower on their expeditions, Native Americans roamed the area and thought the structure a sacred place. Their legends of the tower’s formation were based on their spiritual beliefs and their oral traditions. Stories were told and passed down, and they live on today because of the retelling.
According to Native American legends, the marks on the side of the tower were caused by bears trying to attack them as they sought safety. The Kiowa tribe’s legend states there were seven children playing near a stream when they were chased by a bear. They jumped on a low rock for safety and prayed for the rock to save them, and it grew up out of the ground to keep the children from the bear’s reach. The children were lifted into the sky and are now the stars in a constellation Pleiades.
The Cheyenne also told of the tower as protection from bears. A grizzly carried a woman into a cave, and the warriors went after it to save her. When the bear chased them out of the cave, they, too, stood on a small rock and sang. By the time the song was over, the rock had grown too tall for the bear.
The legends show that the tribes thought of the tower as a place of safety, but also a site that was capable of other-worldly magic. The tower represents a landmark of renewal and rebirth, where children can become emblazoned in the night sky and live eternally. The stories are important to preserve the traditions and cultures of some of South Dakota’s earlier human inhabitants.
Visiting Devils Tower
Devils Tower is so colossal the top is the size of a football field. The only animals that make it to the peak are the occasional rodents or snake, and humans of course. Whether you’re daring enough to attempt a climb or if you’re just looking for a casual stroll, Devils Tower offers many fun activities for everyone.
Climbing – For the brave souls who want an extreme adventure on their South Dakota vacation, join the hundreds of climbers who scale the tower ever summer. The first actual ascent of Devils Tower took place on July 4, 1893 by two local ranchers, William Rogers and Willard Ripley. They were able to climb the rock by drilling wooden pegs into the side and using these as a ladder. Though the ladder doesn’t exist in its entirety today, you can still see some of the pegs stuck into the rock when hiking the Tower Trail.
Hiking – Looking for a more casual approach to viewing the formation? Try hiking one of the many trails in the area, or even taking a guided walk with a ranger. Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready for the wildlife, such as deer, turkey, bobcats, foxes, and even the occasional mountain lion.
Camping – The Belle Fourche River Campground is open from May until October. Dip your feet in the water after a long day’s hike, and spend your evening in the comfort of your own tent site enjoying the distant stars over Devils Tower. Make sure to stop at the amphitheater in the picnic area for one of the rangers’ nightly programs. Shows are typically Wednesday through Sunday at 8 pm.
Visitors Center and Bookstore – To make the most of your visit, stay informed about the local history and culture of the landmark. Head to the Visitor Center for some fun facts, and stop by the Natural History Association Bookstore to stock up on reading materials for the rest of your trip.
The Mirage of the Prairie
Rising up out of the prairie like an emperor over a kingdom, Devils tower is so astonishing it has left many weary travelers rejuvenated with awe and admiration. Only the most marvelous of nature’s formations will leave such a rich and cultured history. At the close of the day, visitors gather to watch as the tower tints red in the burning light of the setting sun, carrying with it the promise to return with a new day.
Devils Tower National Monument is open 24 hours a day all year, as long as the roads leading to it aren’t impassable due to inclement weather. The Visitor Center and Bookstore hours vary depending on the season. Prices also vary depending on vehicle and length of stay; for more information please visit the site here.